Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader (Volume 1)
I thought that I knew what Virginia Woolf had to offer from To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway, someone both in retreat and brimming over at the same time, a little too knowing about not knowing. Well, I got her wrong. If you read The Common Reader you’ll find one of the most solid and sane of minds and, for all her Bloomsbury setness, she’s not in the least high-brow. I’d like to claim her as an honourable member of The Reader set too. Here’s how she opens the book:
There is a sentence in Dr Johnson’s ‘Life of Gray’ which might well be written up in all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people. ‘. . . I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtlety and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.’
[. . .]
The common reader, as Dr Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole — a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.
Like a burrowing animal or any creature ‘guided by instinct’ to build a home, the common reader grabs this and that from books, whatever comes to hand, and not for the purposes of learning or for artistry but for the more humble and grand purpose of shaping a sense of the world that will let you live. I love how Johnson and Woolf leave our faults intact: ‘worse educated’, ‘hasty, inaccurate and superficial’ and value those very faults for the honest reality-seeking they betray. The result might be a ‘rickety and ramshackle fabric’ and not ‘the real object’ but the structure looks enough like reality to create a space for all that actually is real: ‘affection, laughter, and argument’.
The common reader is a pioneer, an inheritor of Adam and Eve, and it is fitting that somehow, by democracy, genetics or luck, we decide the ‘poetical honours’, which in turn allow the survival of Hardy, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy, and the continuing reality of Virginia Woolf, the Psalms and whoever else of all the writers have made it into our home. Art is for using and the use we put it to is reality.
The Common Reader is made up of essays on whatever takes Woolf’s attention and they are illuminating pieces, as in the second essay, ‘On Not Knowing Greek’, where she ascribes the remote utterances of Greek drama to the out-of-doors demands of the audience, as contrasted with Northern Europe’s indoors state of mind:
In fact, of course, these Queens and Princesses were out of doors, with the bees buzzing past them, shadows crossing them, and the wind taking their draperies. They were speaking to an enormous audience rayed round them on one of those brilliant southern days when the sun is so hot and yet the air so exciting. The poet, therefore, had to bethink him, not of some theme which could be read for hours in privacy, but of something emphatic, familiar, brief, that would carry, instantly and directly, to an audience of seventeen thousand people perhaps, with ears and eyes eager and attentive, with bodies whose muscles would grow stiff if they sat too long without diversion.
Her grasp of remoteness gives you a glance at the living (though long dead) faces of the audience, and succeeds in gaining a sense of closeness through intuiting the need of asperity. The book is full of insights like this that put you in place to understand better. There’s Chaucer, Conrad, the Elizabethans, Daniel Defoe, Austen, Eliot and much more. Don’t do without this book any longer! Now all I need is Volume 2.